Tunisia’s cabinet briefly adjourned its meeting to vote on a reshuffle by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on Tuesday.
MPs demanded the withdrawal of armoured vehicles from outside the Parliament building before they proceed with the vote. The vehicles were moved into position as protests in the area intensified.
The meeting is taking place just a day after a 20-year-old protester died after clashes with police.
About 150 protestors, mostly young people and minors made their way towards Parliament after gathering earlier in a neighbourhood five kilometres away. Thousands more are expected to join them following calls from activists, several political parties, and the major trade unions.
Rachdi’s family told local media he was struck with a tear gas canister after joining protests in his home town of Sbeitla that erupted this month on the anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
The Public Prosecutor’s office in nearby Kasserine, about three hours south of the capital, ordered a postmortem to determine the cause of Rachdi’s death, the state news agency, TAP reported.
After news of his death, a group of young men tried to storm and torch the local police station, leading to more clashes, TAP reported.
On Tuesday, thousands are expected to gather outside the Bardo Palace “in rejection of the government’s approach in dealing with popular protests in which hundreds of youths arrested,” a joint statement released on Monday by Tunisia’s civil society organisations said.
In a further blow to Mr Mechichi, President Kais Saied on Monday indicated he would oppose the cabinet reshuffle.
The move escalates a dispute with the prime minister as a political logjam undermines efforts to tackle the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Mr Saied said the reshuffle would be unconstitutional on procedural grounds, condemned the absence of women among the prospective new ministers and said some potential new Cabinet members may have conflicts of interest.
Tunisia has been politically all but deadlocked since two separate elections in 2019 put Mr Saied into office but left a deeply fragmented parliament in which no party held more than a quarter of the seats.
The constitution worked out in 2014 after the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy gave parliament the main voice in forming a government. But the president also has a role in a complex system of approvals and vetoes.
It took several months after the election for a government to form early last year, but it lasted only until the summer before falling in a scandal as the pandemic took hold.
Mr Saied then proposed Mr Mechichi as prime minister, but soon fell out with him despite the successful formation of the government, which narrowly won parliamentary backing.
Mr Mechichi is still expected to win Tuesday’s confidence vote in his new administration, in part due to broader unease in parliament at the prospect of a forced national election during the pandemic and anger at the government.
The Covid-19 crisis is weakening an already battered economy, which shrank more than 8 per cent last year. Foreign lenders, as well as Tunisia’s powerful unions, urge speedy reforms.
But the political jostling among parties and prominent figures that has accompanied each stage of the process has delayed government efforts to enact longstanding change.
Tunisia’s economy was not delivering even before the pandemic, with sluggish growth, high deficits and public debt and failing state-owned companies.